Pathos is the emotion a communicator tries to convey through oral or written communication. Communicators use pathos to convey empathy to their audience, to keep control over a situation, and to transfer emotion to an audience. Empathy is the most important aspect of pathos because it lets the audience know that the communicator understands their feelings. Additionally, a strong pathos will give the audience a sense that someone is in control of the situation. Empathy also lifts audience moral and encourages a positive mindset. A communicator, for example, can transfer passion for cleaning up an area after a tornado to the affected people to get the city back to normal. Whether a communicator is perceived as empathetic depends on whether the speaker is able to project appropriate feelings and sensitivity to a situation.
Empathy during Hurricane Katrina
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in the fall of 2005, the media portrayed the crisis with a sense of militarism and government incompetence. Waymer & Heath (2007) say that audiences look to organizations to explain crises, but in Katrina the explanation they received did not comfort them (p. 92). New Orleans was shown as a war zone, giving audiences a sense that the only way the city could ever get back to normal was with the help of the National Guard. The media wanted audiences to see the city this way because it revitalized the now fading sense of militarism in the United States since 9/11. This pathos of militarism and chaos also made it seem to audiences that the people of New Orleans were helpless, giving audiences a reason to think that the government was needed there more than they actually were.
The media also emphasized the looting of New Orleans. Despite that people of all ages and races were involved, the media displayed a pathos of racism and anger against young African American males. The fact that this was a dishonest representation did not matter to the media, as authors Tierney, Beve, and Kuligowski (2006) report: “…media treatments of disasters both reflect and reinforce broader societal and cultural trends, socially constructed metanarratives, and hegemonic discourse practices that support the status quo and the interest of the elites” (p.62). The pathos shown by the media during this crisis did not help the people of New Orleans because it was depressing and disheartening, giving them no hope that their city would ever get back to normal.